‘No first use’ nuke policy isn’t dead, but losing sanctity
A policy of no first use is, in fact, a promise not to do something in the future: not to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh decided to mark the one year anniversary of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s death by making some news. He not only went to Pokhran, the site of each of India’s nuclear tests, to visit “the area which witnessed Atal ji’s firm resolve to make India a nuclear power”, but also to remind everyone of Vajpayee’s commitment to the doctrine of nuclear no first use. That doctrine, Singh assured his listeners, had been “strictly adhered to” up until now, but he then ominously emphasized, “What happens in future depends on the circumstances.” This was not a formal change in doctrine or policy, yet, but it is an unmistakable and remarkable policy statement.
A policy of no first use is, in fact, a promise not to do something in the future: not to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Nuclear use is not something considered on any normal day, so a policy of no first use is a commitment that even in the deepest crisis or war, even if a country had reason to fear an adversary might use nuclear weapons imminently, even if a country might benefit from nuclear first use, that the country commits to forgo that option. Rajnath Singh was telling the world that while India intended no first use today, nothing binds it to doing so tomorrow. In so doing, Rajnath Singh was in fact saying that a commitment that originated with Vajpayee wasn’t much of a commitment at all.
This has been a long time coming. During the 2014 campaign, following speculation that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) might revise no first use, the then-candidate for Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, settled the matter by seemingly reaffirming the declaration, calling it a “reflection of our cultural inheritance.” This time, however, the BJP has, instead, openly thrown into question India’s commitment to adhere to what is now a crumbling pillar of India’s nuclear doctrine.
In his Friday remarks, Singh becomes the most recent senior Indian official to question the wisdom, and erode the sanctity, of no first use, and did so in a clearly scripted statement that one has to assume was carefully formulated and sanctioned by the Cabinet Committee on Security. In November 2016, then-defense minister Manohar Parrikar stated, albeit clarified later that it was only in his “personal capacity,” that India should not have a public policy on first use. “Why should I bind myself?” he asked. Lt. Gen. (retd.) B. S. Nagal, a former strategic forces commander, similarly argued in favor of a doctrine of “ambiguity.” Former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon argued in his 2016 memoir that India’s existing doctrine, even with its declaration of no first use, had a “grey area” in the circumstance that Indian officials concluded another nuclear state was preparing for imminent nuclear attack. Preemption might be permissible, Menon argued, and even with a declared doctrine of no first use, India’s doctrine was “more flexible” than was widely believed.
Even the old statesman Vajpayee’s commitment to no first use had its limits. In 2000, Vajpayee told a crowd in Jalandhar, “We are being threatened [by Pakistan] with a nuclear attack. Do they understand what it means? If they think we would wait for them to drop a bomb and face destruction, they are mistaken.”
Well-known nuclear expert Manpreet Sethi reacted to Friday’s news by asking, “What’s new here?” And perhaps the answer is not much, but for reasons quite different than what Sethi is implying. Sethi, among others, have downplayed any erosion in the government’s commitment to no first use as simply a stream of “personal opinions,” though it is now impossible to discount a scripted statement from the sitting defense minister. But in making their argument, those who point to continuity in nuclear policy have left a moth-eaten no first use doctrine, one with so many loopholes and caveats as to have no real meaning. And perhaps that is how the no first use doctrine has always functioned: as reassuring rhetoric, but almost impossible to make credible in practice. For example, ironically, Indian analysts routinely dismiss China’s no first use policy for the same reasons—as empty rhetoric—that others dismiss India’s.
Singh’s statement ominously contained an element of threat. Maybe Singh’s audience is in Beijing, as China considers what nuclear moves to make as Washington and Moscow tear up arms control treaties. Or, as China modernizes militarily and develops a growing array of ballistic missiles, perhaps Beijing should consider the possibility that India will not forever pursue nuclear restraint. More likely, it is no accident that such a statement was made during a period when Indo-Pakistani relations are as bad as they have been in a decade. While the 2016 “surgical strikes” and 2019 Balakot attacks were intended to show that the Modi government did not view the status quo as acceptable, Singh’s statement also signals that India may consider a wider array of options in the future. Be careful, Singh appears to be saying, do not think that Pakistan’s threat of nuclear first use will deter us from a major conventional war if Pakistan continues to sponsor terrorism on our soil: we won’t be the first to use nuclear weapons, but neither will we be the second.
Such statements, however, are not cost free. Occurring alongside nearly two decades of Indian investments in precision-strike weapons, new cruise and ballistic missiles, ballistic missile defenses, and a wide-array of terrestrial, airborne, and space-based intelligence assets, India is increasingly capable of—and perhaps interested in—locating and destroying a meaningful part of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. But in order to do so, it would almost certainly have to act preemptively, as Singh opens the door to.
This worries Pakistan and forces it to take destabilizing steps in both peacetime and war. In peacetime, Pakistan has already undertaken and will continue to pursue dispersal, mobility, and more weapons—in a country riddled with militancy. And in war, if Pakistan fears India will preempt, Pakistan will have stronger incentives to preempt the preemption, and round and round they go until crises become nuclearized at the very outset. Just as there were reports that India’s nuclear ballistic missile submarine, INS Arihant, was deployed early in the Balakot crisis, we can expect Pakistan to similarly disperse nuclear assets in future episodes, with uncertain implications for safety and security.
So, in many ways, Singh was stating what Pakistan already believed. But in doing so, he became the highest serving Government of India official to explicitly state that India’s no first use policy is neither permanent nor absolute and that one day, at its own discretion and without warning, it may be tempted to strike first. NFU as official policy may not be dead, but it no longer has any meaning to India’s adversaries. This only puts more pressure on Pakistan and China to respond in kind. As India, Pakistan, and China make these moves and countermoves, the question remains: is anyone actually safer?
(Christopher Clary is an assistant professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Vipin Narang is an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of MIT’s Security Studies Program. The views expressed are personal.)